JGR Leads The Pack

Saturday, Mar 05
Qualifying was held earlier this morning for the Boyd Gaming 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The session was executed in a knockout-group format with three rounds. 42 NASCAR Xfinity drivers started, 24 would advance to round 2 and only 12 moved on to the final round.

Joe Gibbs Racing has never won an Xfinity race on the 1.5 mile track but all three of their drivers had great speed during all three qualifying sessions. Kyle Busch, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez will all lead the field to green when the 200-lap race rolls off later this afternoon.

Busch led round one in the No. 18 NOS Energy Drink Toyota with a lap time of 29.522. Busch bettered his time by .086 in round two with 29.436. He went on to grab his 50th Xfinity pole in the five-minute dash known as round three, posting a time of 29.559.
Jones had solid qualifying laps to earn a front row starting spot. He recorded a lap of 29.566 in the final round and will start second in the No. 20 Interstate Batteries Toyota.

Suarez wasn't far behind his teammates in the qualifying rounds. He will start third behind Busch in the No. 19 ARRIS Toyota. Suarez is currently ranked second in the Xfinity standings, just three points behind Elliott Sadler.

Tune into FS1, PRN and Sirius XM Channel 90 for race coverage starting at 12:30 PM PT, 3:30 PM ET.

Here's how the qualifying session stacked up:

Round 1

1. Kyle Busch

2. Erik Jones

3. Brandon Jones

Round 2

1. Kyle Busch

2. Daniel Suarez

3. Erik Jones

Top 10 Starters

1. Kyle Busch

2. Erik Jones

3. Daniel Suarez

4. Chase Elliott

5. Brandon Jones

6. Justin Allgaier

7. Elliott Sadler

8. Brendan Gaughan

9. Ty Dillon

10. Aric Almirola

Denny Hamlin had the dominant car in the Daytona 500, leading a race-high 95 laps. The Sprint Unlimited winner last Saturday evening was victorious of Martin Truex, Jr. in the closest finish in the race’s 58-year history.

The No. 11 car margin of victory was .011 seconds. All day long it was Toyota’s in the front of the field, led by the foursome of Joe Gibbs Racing and contributed by Furniture Row Racing in its first race in a Camry.

Hamlin was running fourth as the field passed the finish line with one to go. Going into Turn 1 he made a bold move to the outside getting a push from Kevin Harvick, drafting him all the way to third when race leader Matt Kenseth went to block the No. 11 car, the two made contact sending the No. 20 team to the back.

It was then a dog fight down the front stretch to see who was going to claim victory, but in the end it was Hamlin who just edged Truex by inches.

“It’s storybook,” Hamlin said. “You want to win the close ones, it’s what makes it exciting. You make a pass on the last lap to win the Daytona 500. We all want to win for the Gibbs family because that is what they do. It’s good to see a family organization like this win the biggest race of the year.”

This marks Toyota’s first Daytona 500 win as an organization and its Joe Gibbs Racing’s first Daytona 500 win since 1993 when Dale Jarrett took the No. 18 team to victory.

In his first race back in a Toyota, Truex finished in a disappointing second and came up just short of writing his name in the history books as a Daytona 500 champion.

Though, he only led two laps on the afternoon, he was in a backup car after crashing in Thursday’s Can-Am Duels. He believes that the only shot he had at the victory was Kenseth’s move to block Hamlin.

“I felt like Matt (Kenseth) moving up to block that run, it gave us the best opportunity to win,” Truex said. “Without that we weren’t going to have that opportunity. I was really planning on trying to push Matt till off of four.”

365 days following his vicious crash in the XFINITY Series race at Daytona, Kyle Busch finished third in his first race back in the Great American Race since 2014.

There were stints in the race that the No. 18 car was the car out front pacing the field for 19 laps. This is his best career finish in a Daytona 500.

The first non-Toyota finisher was Kevin Harvick, whom finished fourth. The No. 4 car was near the front for the majority of the first run of the race, until the car wiggled off Turn 4, causing him to have an incredible save.

“The problem for us started early in the race when I got spun out and lost track position and never really got the track position back until the very end of the race,” Harvick said. “We were really in a good spot there as we were coming to the checkered flag. I just wanted to be that first car in the outside line and Denny wounded up popping out in front of us and winning the race.”

Carl Edwards rounded out the top five. He had to overcome an incident on Lap 56 where his No. 19 Camry got turned into the outside wall costing him to lose a couple of laps. After getting back on the lead lap, he methodically worked his way up to run with his teammates and evidently found them on the last restart with 12 laps to go.

The right front of the car was torn off following the checkered flag, causing Edwards to wonder how he was able to stay up in the lead pack, drafting and having a shot at the victory.

Last year’s Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano finished just outside the top five in sixth. He was very aggressive throughout the entirety of the event, but could never get his Fusion out front. With a couple of laps to go he made a move trying to gain track position and go to the front, but had no help.

Regan Smith placed eighth in the 500, one position short of his career best in this event. However, for a deal that got signed one month ago to the day, putting him back full-time in a Cup car with Tommy Baldwin Racing, he considered this experience as an “awesome race.”

After leading going into Turn 3 on the final lap Kenseth came home in a disappointing 14th. He was roughly 1000 yards from cementing his legacy has a three-time Daytona 500 winner, but dropped 13 positions in the time back to the checkered flag.

The No. 20 car was out front for 40 laps, second most of all drivers, but knows that the restrictor plate tracks fill the minority of the schedule.

The complex of the race changed on Lap 170 when pre-race favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr. spun into the inside wall. After having a big run on the outside he overcorrected his car in Turn 4 and lost control.

The disappointing 36th-place finish is not how the 13-time most popular driver wanted to start off his year. This put an end to his four consecutive top five-streak in the Daytona 500.

Pole-sitter Chase Elliott had an eventful day from the very first lap. After being out front for the opening three circuits, the No. 24 lost control of his car out of Turn 4 much like his teammate did later in the race.  A 37th-place result is not the way that the Cup rookie wanted to start off his campaign.

After one of the more exciting Daytona 500 in recent years, the Cup Series takes its circus to Atlanta Motor Speedway next weekend to truly start off the new season.

Just prior to the beginning of the 2015 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Denny Hamlin announced that he had torn his right ACL playing basketball. This was his second ACL tear in the last five years, as the Virginia native underwent off-season surgery to repair his beat up ACL.

Over the course of his career, Hamlin has been notorious for getting injured. Whether it was breaking his back in 2013 after being wrecked by Joey Logano at Auto Club Speedway, a piece of glass getting into his eye, severe neck spasms that had Erik Jones replace him at Bristol in 2015 or his most recent ACL tear, injuries have cost the Joe Gibbs Racing driver some time behind the wheel.

In 2010, Hamlin tore his ACL and had to go to the shortest track in NASCAR, and the track that is arguably the toughest on a driver’s leg, Martinsville, and won the race. The next day, he underwent surgery to fix the tear. After the off-week, the series returned to the Texas Motor Speedway where he also went out and earned the triumph, struggling to get out of his car in Victory Lane.

However, the most recent tear was a lot worse than the first one, according to Hamlin. The pain was similar, but the extent of the surgery and rehabilitation was more complex. This time, the rehabilitation has been tougher, forcing Hamlin to spend more time in physical therapy as he gears up for the 2016 season.

“Well, this one is extensively worse than the first,” Hamlin told Speedway Digest in a teleconference. “The best explanation that I get is that the first one I used the cadaver and I needed to get back in the race car right away, so we did a cadaver and we didn't use any parts of my hamstring or any other parts of my leg simply for recovery purposes.  It would recover faster, and we didn't think we'd have any injuries to that same leg going forward.”

In the last six years technology has changed, resulting in a different type of surgery for Hamlin. He still had to repair the wounded leg, but with driving in 11 races post-ACL tear, including a win at Chicago, he had time to think about when and how he wanted the surgery done. 

This surgery differs from the one in 2010 because it is a little more extensive. It was a slightly more severe surgery, allowing for a better rehab because he actually had time to go to rehabilitation. When he tore the ACL six years ago, there was no time to get out of a racecar and get the right procedure done.  

“But this is kind of a new latest way that they're doing these surgeries,” Hamlin said. “Obviously when players are out in football or basketball, they're out for one year on an ACL, where we don't have that time to recover as race car drivers.  Since this has happened in the off-season, they chose to do it this way, which is a little bit longer recovery process, but it should be stronger in the long run.” 

Since Hamlin waited until after the season in which he recorded two victories, 14 top fives and 20 top-10 finishes, he would look to make a full recovery by the Daytona 500. However, the “Great American Race” is just over three weeks away and he has recovered just over 50 percent.

On Jan. 19 at the NASCAR Media Tour, Hamlin announced that he was about 50 percent in terms of his recovery. In the last week he has regained some stability and range in motion, in which he has struggled with since surgery. He also mentioned that he believes his knee will be a non-factor in two weeks when cars are back on track for Sprint Unlimited and Daytona 500 practice.

Hamlin, 35, believed that this procedure was necessary so that after recovery he would be stronger than he was before.

Said Hamlin: “Even if I gain one to two percent more reliability with it, it was worth it to me to go through that extra rehab process to know that it's just going to be a little bit stronger than if I would have done it the other way.”

During the 2010 season after his last ACL surgery, Hamlin went on win eight races and was in position to compete for a championship until the final race, where he had a 15-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson prior to the event as Johnson went on to win his fifth consecutive championship.

Coming off the season in which he had the most wins since the 2012 season, Hamlin will look to conquer his first title, injury free in 2016.

2015 was the year of Joe Gibbs Racing. The team was able to take the checkered flag 14 times over the span of the 36-race season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, evidently winning the championship with Kyle Busch. The Gibbs organization will look to keep up its dominance in 2016.

At the end of 2015, JGR announced that there would be crew chief changes beginning at the Daytona 500. Mike Wheeler was announced as the new crew chief for Denny Hamlin, replacing Dave Rogers. Rogers, formerly the crew chief for Denny Hamlin, is moving over to lead the No. 19 team with Carl Edwards, replacing Darian Grubb, who was left without a job before returning to Hendrick Motorsports.

Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens would remain intact after a championship-winning season. Matt Kenseth and Jason Ratcliff are coming off an impressive five-win season and will continue to work together for the fourth consecutive season.

Team owner Joe Gibbs believed that it was in everyone’s best interest to make changes even after having one of the best seasons in team history. The organization is coming off of a season where it tallied 45 top-five finishes and racked up 71 top 10s. Gibbs thinks that the current driver lineup is one of the best that the team has ever had. However, he was hesitant to say that his team is the best in the garage.

“I know in pro sports that one thing doesn’t guarantee anything for the next year,” Gibbs said on Tuesday at the NASCAR Media Tour. “I do feel good about our guys and our crew chiefs. Professional sports are hard. In 2013, we had one of our best years, but in 2014 we had our worst year. In professional sports, it can go south in a hurry.”

Busch will have the same exact team as he did last year, and will be one of the favorites for the championship heading into the new season. After recording five victories in just 25 races in 2015, Busch is looking to build on his success in 2016.

The reigning Cup champion will continue to bounce ideas off of his teammates in order for the team to be successful.

“I feel like we are one of the top teams, if not the top team in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition,” Busch said. “With the drivers and crew chiefs we have, I feel like everything could go down the path that it did last year with strong runs, race wins and competing for championships. We almost put two of our cars in the championship race if Carl [Edwards] had a few more points at Phoenix to be able to move on through. We have a lot of good things coming up.”

Like Busch, the No. 20 team will also have the same crew as they did in 2015. Kenseth won five times last season after going winless in 2014. The 43-year-old driver believes that his team will be just as good, if not better than they were in 2015.

He led 927 laps in 2015, the most out of all four drivers at Joe Gibbs Racing. He had a stretch of races in August and September where he won four out of eight races, but during the second round of the Chase, his championship hopes ended. Coming off of the season where he was suspended for two races for intentionally wrecking Joey Logano at Martinsville, Kenseth is looking to lean off his teammates and taking the next step as an organization.

“I feel like obviously I’ve got great teammates,” Kenseth said. “I think it’s what you don’t see that makes is so successful. They all put in the time, work and the effort and give good feedback. Those guys are good and they work really hard at it.”

Edwards on the other hand experienced an adjustment period for the first half of 2015 with his new team. In the first half of the season, the No. 19 team only found the top-10 three times. It was in the second half of the season that Grubb and he began to find consistency and made a run that had them fall just short of making it to the championship race at Homestead.

Statistically speaking, the move to JGR was very similar as 2014 when Edwards drove for Roush Fenway Racing. He finished the season with seven top-five finishes and rallied to have 15 top 10’s. There were many challenges that the team faced in the first season, but it is about the people for the Missouri native. The people are the reason that he jumped over to drive a Toyota and attempt to win his first career Cup championship.

“I’ve never worked with a better group of drivers,” Edwards said of his teammates. “This group right here is just spectacular. I would put these guys up against anyone in the garage. Every week, I’m motivated and pushed by these guys. I would say that we’re going to have a pretty good year if we can just do the things that we’ve been doing. It’s going to be great.”

If it wasn’t for a roof-flap that came loose at Talladega, there is a good chance that Hamlin would have been competing for his first Cup title. Unfortunately for the No. 11 team, bad luck has haunted them at the most inopportune time throughout Hamlin’s stint as the driver. Back in 2011, he had a 15-point lead heading into the season finale, but ultimately lost the championship to Jimmie Johnson.

2016 will look to be a different story for the Virginia native. Coming off of a season where he finished with 14 top fives, more than he had total in 2013 and 2014, he believes that this season could be the season that JGR elevates to the top race season in NASCAR.

“I think we can repeat what we did last year,” Hamlin said. “There is no reason why we can’t win half of the races and win the championship, especially with the group of drivers and crew chiefs that we have to work with. There is no reason why we can’t have success, especially knowing that we were successful with this low-downforce package last year.”

All four of the JGR drivers will be among the favorites for the championship. If the drivers can continue to work closely together there is no telling where JGR can go, and possibly establish the organization as the best team in NASCAR. 

 

This NASCAR season has been everything but ordinary. Over the past three months, there have been multiple drivers to miss time due to medical issues, and teams have acted like they are in the MLB or NFL.

Trading drivers seems rather far-fetched, but that is what has occurred in the NASCAR world in 2015.

Following Kyle Busch’s hard wreck at Daytona, where he hit an area of the inside retaining wall that was not protected by the SAFER Barrier, the 29-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winner was sent to the hospital. With Busch being out for several months, and no announcement on when he will be back other than that it will be before the series returns to Daytona in July, Joe Gibbs Racing made a “trade” with Front Row Motorsports. Well, it would have been a trade, but the small Ford team ended up losing its top driver.

Two-time Camping World Truck Series champion Matt Crafton replaced Busch for the Daytona 500, and David Ragan has since piloted the No. 18 car. Meanwhile, Brian Vickers, who missed the first two races due to cardiovascular surgery over the off-season, returned to the seat of his Michael Waltrip Racing car at Las Vegas. Evidently, his blood clots returned, and after announcing he would be out for at least three months, MWR was forced to put rookie Brett Moffitt into the car.

Now, with Erik Jones set to take over the No. 18 Toyota for JGR until Busch’s return, Ragan is set to join MWR for the remainder of the season. If and when Vickers come back is still in question, but our Speedway Digest team takes a look at some key questions that have come up with all the announcements as of late in our first round table discussion.


1. David Ragan was announced as the driver of the No. 55 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing, replacing Brian Vickers for the remainder of the season. After earning one top 10 and an average finish of nearly 20th this season for Joe Gibbs Racing, what makes Ragan a hot commodity for this team?
                                    

Brett Winningham:  I see Ragan fitting in with the Michael Waltrip Racing team very well. Even though the finishes with the Joe Gibbs Racing team could have been better, I think he will perform just as well with MWR. The team has been off lately, earning only three top 10 finishes in 2015. With the addition of Ragan, it could potentially improve the team moving forward. It also allows Ragan a much better chance at making the Chase for the Sprint Cup if he can score a victory or record enough solid finishes to get into the Chase via points.

Steven Wilson: Ragan has been able to keep the car clean through the events he's run with JGR aside for an issue at Bristol. For one, it makes him look good to a team that is going to be able to give good information on what the car is doing and how to make it better with his many years behind the wheel. But most of all, he can bring the car home in one piece.

Joseph Wolkin: Ragan is a marketable driver. He was the face of AAA when he first came into the sport, and eventually did the same for UPS. Though he has had some struggles with Front Row Motorsports, the chance with Joe Gibbs Racing has shown that he is capable of running up front. His results don’t show it, but Ragan has proved thus far in 2015 that he can and will be a consistent driver once again.

Dustin Albino: Ragan has always been a solid talent behind the wheel of a racecar. Ever since he was with Roush Fenway Racing in his rookie year, he established himself as a threat to make the Chase. However, in 2012 when Ragan jumped into the No. 34, that wasn’t the best move at the time. But, it was the only ride available in the Cup Series. A big reason why Ragan landed the No. 18 ride following Kyle Busch’s injury is because he is more established and a true veteran of the sport.


2. With Ragan going to Michael Waltrip Racing, Vickers will need to find sponsorship if he is healthy before the end of the season. What does this indicate for Vickers' career?

Wilson: Vickers has had such an up and down past 18 months or so with his health coming back early this year for two events to have to get out the car the next week. With him being back on medications that will take him out the car for the foreseeable future, throwing in the recent announcement he will have to take a hard look at his abilities going forward. Will he be able to run 400-500 mile events? Do the rewards out-weigh the risks?

Albino: This is a real bummer for Vickers. The big question is will he be healthy? No one knows. The blood clots seem to be reoccurring very often. Vickers first has to put his health first. As hard as that may be, he needs to continue being smart about the way he approaches his life.

The fact that Aaron’s stuck behind Vickers through thick and thin, and now that Ragan is hopping in the No. 55 for the remaining of the 2015 season has to be eating Vickers alive. There is no telling where his career may go from here, but getting healthy is the number one priority.

Winningham:  At this point for Brian Vickers, I don’t see him returning to the No. 55 Toyota next year if he ends up sidelined for the rest of the season. The Michael Waltrip Racing team cannot afford to be effected by this week after week. When and if Vickers returns, it will be interesting to see how the situation will unfold.

Wolkin: This is a very difficult situation for everyone involved. Obviously, Waltrip’s team was trying to prevent this situation, but it appears Vickers’ career is in jeopardy with this latest health issue. The team needed a season-long replacement to give the sponsor a driver that is consistent behind the wheel, which puts Vickers out of a ride if he can come back before the end of the year.

If he can beat the odds and race again, which he seemingly will be able to do once doctors take him off Xarelto, it appears he will have to find sponsorship to run a third car for the team. Co-owner Rob Kauffman has put his company on the team’s cars before, and this is a situation where he probably would do so at least until the remainder of the season. However, he’s in a bit of a pickle if Ragan performs well, which would mean he could likely be a free agent once again.

3. Prior to his stint with Joe Gibbs Racing, Ragan was slated to run for Front Row Motorsports for the fourth straight season. What opportunities are presented to the Georgia native now that he has publicity on his side, along with a possible developing relationship with MWR's sponsor, Aaron's? 

Wolkin: This opportunity with MWR is gigantic for Ragan. Performing well, he can see himself in the No. 55 car in 2016, and possibly locking up a multi-year deal. However, if he struggles, Ragan could be sent back to a lower-tier team, such as Front Row Motorsports. This is his last big chance at getting a top ride in the Cup Series, and his future will be based on his performances. There are several drivers with expiring contracts this year, and if MWR opts to put another driver in the car for 2016, there should be some openings for him.

Albino: Ragan is now a veteran of the Sprint Cup Series, and he is able to have sponsors behind him, while previously driving the No. 34 the past three seasons, Front Row Motorsports didn’t have a primary sponsor to fund him. Now that he knows where he will be for the remaining of the 2015 season, it will be critical for the Georgia native to perform. He was also put in a tough situation by taking over the No. 18 for Kyle Busch. Erik Jones is the future of Joe Gibbs Racing, and team owner Joe Gibbs hinted that the young 18-year-old would be in the Cup Series soon following his first career NASCAR XFINITY Series win at Texas. However, Ragan is now granted an opportunity to drive for a sponsor in Aaron’s that is fully committed to Michael Waltrip and Michael Waltrip Racing. Ragan may have found himself a quality long-term ride.

Winningham: If David Ragan can build a relationship with the Michael Waltrip Racing organization, it would more than likely save his racing career. It would also be a huge confidence boost since he entered the 2015 season not knowing how many races he could run with Front Row Motorsports due to sponsorship issues. At the same time, if Ragan cannot produce for MWR, it could also hurt his racing career. 

Wilson: Other than being with JGR, giving him a shot to do some good things in a racecar was still a temporary spot for him not knowing when he would be out of the car and go back to Front Row Motorsports. This gives him one of his best shots to have the engineering and sponsorship money behind him with MWR and Toyota to back his effort for the remainder of 2015. This also is an opportunity for him to move into 2016 with a team that is better equipped to give him more wins in the Sprint Cup Series. Obviously, having long-time MWR sponsor Aaron's onboard gives him the path to continue with MWR if and when Vickers may return or if he doesn't, he will have a legitimate shot at keeping the seat with his knowledge and ability to bring a car home clean.

4. As Ragan departs Front Row Motorsports, the team is looking to replace him. Originally, he did not have funding to run the full season in the No. 34 car, but as of now - the team has run every race. Chris Buescher has been the main man behind the wheel, but what route should the team go after losing its lead driver?  

Albino: It will be interesting in the upcoming weeks to see what Front Row Motorsports decides to do with the No. 34 car. It seems as if the team is giving Roush Fenway Racing XFINITY Series driver Chris Buescher the go behind the wheel. He is a fellow Ford driver who has done a respectable job in his first four races behind the wheel with an average finish of 24.8. However, Bob Jenkins doesn’t want to go in the hole in regards to money, and without a primary sponsor on board, it will be hard to do. Giving young drivers an opportunity is always a good thing for the sport. However, is the driver up for the challenge? Maybe rotating a few younger drivers in that car for the remainder of the season is the way to go. But what if Vickers ended up in that ride? Only time will tell.

Wolkin:
Chris Buescher is the obvious choice for the races that his XFINITY Series ride does not conflict with the Cup Series schedule. If he runs more than seven events this year, he will not be eligible for the Rookie of the Year when he races full-time in the Cup Series (possibly as soon as next year or 2017). Expect Buescher and Brett Moffitt to split this ride, with an occasional shot for young drivers, such as Ryan Ellis, Ryan Reed, Darrell Wallace Jr. or another driver who is associated with Ford.

Winningham: The Front Row Motorsports organization should continue to field the No. 34 Ford with Chris Buescher. Since making his debut with the team earlier this year, Buescher has finished inside the top 30 in each of those starts. In his Sprint Cup Series debut at Auto Club Speedway, Buescher left the two-mile oval with a 20th-place finish. In his last start at the Bristol Motor Speedway, Buescher walked away with a 25th-place finish. Based on these results, I see Front Row continuing to field a Sprint Cup Series entry with the young driver.

Wilson: This puts Brett Moffitt, who's already been in the car for Front Row Motorsports, in a position to be in a more stable seat week in and week out if he is given the opportunity. MWR would obviously like to keep Moffitt, but the lack of sponsorship to fund a third car leaves him out of that. Chris Buescher won't be able to compete each week for FRM due to obligations in the XFINITY series, where he's running for the championship, but gives him more seat time at tracks he's in need of to move on with his career.